FORT MYERS, Fla. - You could say there are some stereotypes associated with Florida golf.
Narrow fairways. Repetitious ski mogul-like mounds lining every fairway.
Forgettable courses built primarily as a nice vista for rows of houses. Soft, over-watered turf. Inflated winter green fees.
So it's a real treat when a course runs against type. Fort Myers Country Club is such a course.
Its name makes it sound like an old-line city-center private club, but that's only half right. It's 101 years old, but "The Fort," as its legions of fans call it, is a municipal course through and through. Not only that, it's very likely the best municipal course in the Sunshine State, and one of the best in the country. If your own winter travels take you within reasonable distance, you owe it to yourself to play it.
"The Fort" was designed by Donald Ross, who, the more I think about it, probably deserves the "Greatest Golf Course Architect Ever" tag. The hundreds of courses Ross designed, reconfigured and consulted on are of reliably high quality, with his "worst" work - courses that have not been very well preserved over the years, mostly - being, at the very least, solid. His best? You know the names: Pinehurst No. 2, Oakland Hills (South), Seminole, Oak Hill (East).
Until the earlier part of this decade, Fort Myers Country Club was solidly in the former camp. Many years of benign neglect blunted away the character and strategic intrigue inherent to Ross' work. Steve Smyers, an architect based in Florida, brought it back in 2014 with a strong, sensitive hybrid restoration/renovation.
I call the project a hybrid because Smyers had Ross' original layout at his disposal, and restored many greens and bunkers to their intended dimensions, but he also altered the routing of a few holes, mostly in the beginning of the back nine. But whereas even the untrained eye can often tell the original work from latter-day additions to most classic courses, at The Fort, it is almost impossible. For example, the 12th, a medium-length par three, looks for all the world like something Donald Ross would have built, even though it's a Smyers original.
Then there's the turf. On the morning I played The Fort, I came away thinking it was one of the most exquisite Bermuda surfaces I'd ever seen. Golf balls galavanted over the wide fairways and close-clipped rough, tumbling off greensides and down into chipping areas and bunkers. A well-shaped tee shot was rewarded with 20-plus yards more roll than I'm accustomed to, to the point where a few times I regretted having hit driver after being left with an awkward yardage into one of the shorter par-4 greens. In this way, The Fort is a course worth getting to know.
Speaking of which, the greens were in phenomenal shape - ideally firm for the amount of contour, and fast enough to test one's putting without forcing over-caution on each hole. And since they're open in front, the putting surfaces are built to test any level of player. Overall, I found Fort Myers Country Club to be as ideally maintained a course as I've seen in three-plus years living in Florida.
Whether you're coming to the area on a long-weekend buddies trip or mulling over places to hang out for a couple months while your primary home region is snowed in, you need to put this golf course on your itinerary. To walk 18 holes on a glorious February morning cost just $55 - an incredible value for the quality of golf on offer.
The only potential hangup: getting a tee time. Few golf courses host more rounds than The Fort in a year, especially in the winter, and locals get preference. But if you can get on and get out early, you'll revel in one of the best dew-sweeping golf opportunities anywhere.
Nicklaus puts the screws to the careless player
Each of the other three courses I played in the Fort Myers area contrasted in an interesting way with The Fort, such that I thought the group would make a worthy itinerary for a trip.
The Jack Nicklaus Signature-designed Old Corkscrew Golf Club is a prime example of the 2000s philosophy of upscale golf course design. Whereas Fort Myers Country Club is at times a model of austerity, especially in its minimally-sculpted fairways, Old Corkscrew showcases the power of Man to shape a golf course. The environment for Nicklaus' course made a great deal of shaping necessary for drainage purposes; the "Corkscrew" in its name refers to the National Audubon Society-recognized swamp sanctuary at whose edge it sits. This means there are no houses in view at Old Corkscrew, so it's easy to feel ensconced in nature during the round. Furthermore, the wildlife - alligators and all sorts of birds - on display around the course is fun to behold.
If you dwell too much on the setting, though, you'll quickly fall victim to the many hazards - both sandy and watery - throughout the course. Lakes and wetlands come into play on most holes, and bunkers influence every single full swing. Two short par fours and a set of relatively scoreable par fives provide some relief, but these holes have their own snares, especially if you get greedy. The reachable fourth, my favorite hole at Old Corkscrew, offers some interesting options, including a mighty swing for the green from the tee, with a lake up the left side and a snaking bunker splitting the fairway in two, complicating a layup off the tee.
What really amps up the challenge at Old Corkscrew is the contouring of the greens. The greenside difficulty on Nicklaus courses I've played generally comes from the angles at which they're set to the line of play, but the greens themselves at Old Corkscrew have very significant interior contours as well. There are some gathering slopes, thankfully, but they're outnumbered by shedding slopes that can kick a shot off a green and into trouble. The course can frustrate you if you're off your game.
My advice for enjoying Old Corkscrew: err on the side of teeing it forward, play to the middle of the greens when you can, and if you're scheduling a winter trip to the area, make sure you get a round or two under your belt elsewhere before teeing it up here. Also, take note that rates at Old Corkscrew can reach past $200 in peak times of year, but you can find deals on the course's website and through GolfNow that bring the price closer down toward $100 and even below. I found the course to be in excellent shape when I played it.
Raptor Bay offers an upscale change of pace
It's a popular view among golfers that players-turned architects tend to design courses that reflect their playing styles. It's a common adage that Jack Nicklaus designs tend to reward high, often left-to-right approach shots. That's broadly true at Old Corkscrew.
Raymond Floyd, a four-time major champion and one of the most tenacious competitors of his era, was known for his brilliant short game. The course that Floyd and architect Howard Swan designed at Raptor Bay Golf Club a little south of Fort Myers in Bonita Springs, is a place that will test your own up-and-down abilities.
Raptor Bay stands in stark contrast to Old Corkscrew in a number of ways. The first is visual. Old Corkscrew's shaping is overt and bold, while Raptor Bay's is some of the broader and more subtle I've seen on a resort course. Almost all greens are raised above their surroundings, with fairway-length grass sloping off toward crushed coquina waste areas, grassy lows or pine straw. This makes it challenging at times to tell exactly where a hole is located on a green, sowing the sort of doubt that can turn a green-light short iron approach into a missed opportunity. Clever golf courses tend to challenge golfers in non-obvious ways, and Raptor Bay is a particularly good test of one's commitment to approach shots. It's short on flashy eye-candy, but there is a lot to like here, especially the conditioning and the natural setting.
The Hideaway: hidden from view but worth finding
When you ask locals about a course in their home city and they struggle to tell you much about it, it's usually a bad sign.
But in the case of The Hideaway Country Club, back up the road in Fort Myers, the full and vibrant membership is content that their course escapes notice.
The gated community surrounding the course comprises five "villages," each brimming with seasonal and year-round residents who love playing their course. Once a year, the club hosts a tournament where teams from each of the villages duke it out for bragging rights over the following year. Regular play days in the winter are usually shotguns, which means that the bar and restaurant are abuzz after the round.
As for the course, it was originally designed by the prolific Ron Garl, and opened in 1984. In recent years, Jan Bel Jan, a longtime Tom Fazio associate, came to oversee some renovation and beautification work. The members I talked to were all very pleased about her efforts.
The Hideaway lives in an odd middle-ground of length, defying both "championship" and "executive" course classification. It tips out at less than 5,200 yards, but at a par of 67, with three of its seven par threes longer than 170 yards and many longer holes requiring accurate, well-placed shots, it is sneaky-challenging. Its back-tee rating of 66.1 - less than a shot under par and surprisingly high for a course of its length - supports this.
A great example of where The Hideaway can sneak up on you: the 172-yard par-3 third. The hole looks simple enough from the tee - a mid- or long-iron uphill to a green that is open in front. But The Hideaway's Paspalum fairways and putting surfaces make the shot an exacting one: if you land short, your ball will hop up in the air and not forward by very much. But if you land too deep into the firm green, you're likely to skip long. The putting surface slopes steeply from back to front, meaning up-and-down possibilities from over the green are low at best. On a course whose scorecard tempts the birdie-hungry golfer with short holes, this is one where par is a great score.
Take note that The Hideaway is a private club from October through May, so accessing it can be difficult in the high season, But if you find yourself on Florida's west coast in the warmer parts of the year, it makes a great spot for a game, particularly the second round of the day as dusk falls.
More golf and other considerations
Fort Myers' golf scene consists mostly of standalone courses. One I didn't get to play this time but stopped at and look forward to playing soon is River Hall Golf Club, a Davis Love III design that sits at the middle of a nascent master-planned community. Eastwood Golf Course, Fort Myers' other muni, is a 1977 Bruce Devlin/Robert Von Hagge design that is in the midst of its own Steve Smyers-led renovation. The completion of this project should give Fort Myers a heck of a one-two punch of municipal courses.
Lodging in and around Fort Myers is fairly standard — a lot of chain hotels of varying price levels. This makes it more of a DIY destination, but that shouldn't be a deterrent. There is the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs right next to Raptor Bay, which is a pretty high-end spot. I stayed at a Hilton Garden Inn on University Drive that suited my purposes very well. If you want something with more character, there are some Gulf-front hotels on Fort Myers Beach, heading out toward Sanibel Island.
Commercial flyers into the Fort Myers area will likely use Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW), which serves more than 40 cities nonstop on the usual-suspect main airlines.